Equal Pay

Mind the Pay Gap: Tips to Navigate Salary-Based Interview Questions

When you’re interviewing for a job, inevitably you’re going to face the salary questions: “What is your salary history?” or “What is your salary expectation?” These questions can make any applicant feel uncomfortable. But do your research thoroughly, and you’ll be well-prepared to navigate any salary questions that arise during your interview. Remember: A successful salary negotiation will result in a win-win for the employer and the employee.

Is talking about salary history allowed?

First off, many states and local governments have banned employers from asking about salary history or excluding a candidate for consideration because of her refusal to answer. Many of these laws have also banned using salary history to set pay. Since Massachusetts passed the first such law in 2016, 16 other states and 19 localities have followed suit.

Still, interviewers may forget and ask. Or instead, they will inquire about salary expectations, which is legal and almost always asked, instead of salary history. 

Though the law doesn’t eliminate the topic in an interview, salary history should no longer be part of any required paperwork (online or off), if you live in an area with a salary history ban.

Prepare for the salary question

“Good information is key,” says Deborah Kolb, author of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins Into Big Gains. Use your in-person network and look online to research the company and the position before going into the interview, to help you navigate salary questions.

“If you’re going in for the job and you haven’t done the research about the position, the company and the salary, then you’re not really prepared for the interview,” says Leslie Eveland, an executive coach and consultant with Opportu.com. 

Use your network

Reach out to your personal connections for research. Eveland suggests joining professional organizations in your industry, including many of the all-women networks that exist. Ask former co-workers or other professional contacts, including fellow community members at The Riveter or other industry groups.

Kolb points out that many people have a social network with professional contacts who might be happy to chat. (For example, other parents at the playground, Kolb says, are a resource that parents may forget about.) She recommends inviting these contacts out for a coffee just to ask a few questions. “Someone coming in from outside the organization is going to have a different view than someone inside the organization,”  she says.

Devon Smiley, a negotiation consultant, says “When preparing for your negotiation and researching market salaries, I’d suggest making sure you’re asking a diverse group of people for their input, so that you’re not accidentally building in bias to your expectations.” Smiley says that “speaking with other women, but also with men, about salaries can give a broader, eye-opening perspective.” 

Smiley suggests wording the ask by saying something like, “I’m in talks for xyz role at a funded startup. Five years of experience, global responsibility, reporting to the VP. Based on your experience, where would you ballpark that salary?” 

Research online

There is a lot of information online about salaries. In addition to the usual suspects like Glassdoor.com and LinkedIn, look at other public information. A nonprofit will file a 990 tax form, listing compensation for officers, directors and other highest-compensated employees. If you can’t find the salary for a specific company’s job, try to discover what competitors are paying. “Come in with some really concrete information, either about the company or the local market,” says Paula Brantner, principal and president of PB Work Solutions.

It’s NOT all about the money

Experts also suggest a shift in thinking about salary. “Don’t make this question the big focus of the interview,” says Eveland. 

“I think the problem is that people focus on salary too much,” says Kolb. Instead, she suggests being clear about your goals for a new job, both in terms of career and lifestyle. Kolb says, “You can’t get what you want, if you don’t know what you want.” For example, you may want to have more (or less) management responsibility or move departments—salary is just one part of a job’s overall package. A parent with young children might value flexibility, such as the ability to work from home, more than other benefits.

Look at the whole package

“It is really important to reconceptualize the discussion as a total compensation package, instead, and to consider the multitude of interests you have, not just the singular number of your salary,” says Emily T. Amanatullah, Faculty Fellow at Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute.

Some of the factors to consider include:

Compensation Factors

  • Base salary.
  • Signing bonus, annual bonus (individual and group).
  • Retirement options, including stock options, employer matching and pension.
  • Tuition reimbursement.
  • Paid leave.
  • Insurance.

Non-compensation factors:

  • Type of work.
  • Location.
  • Flexibility.
  • Hours.
  • Travel expectations.
  • Stress level.
  • Promotion schedule.

“Identify the least-acceptable deal to cover your interests, as it is important to know the ‘worst’ deal that will meet your minimum needs, so that you know when you are better off walking away from the table,” says Amanatullah.

Deflect and delay 

However, the salary question will still come up in the interview. “Expect to have the question asked and have your deflection ready,” says Brantner. “You don’t want to feel gobsmacked and say the first thing that comes out of your mouth,” she says. 

Make it clear that you will not discuss salary until the offer is on the table. Eveland suggests countering by saying, “Does that mean you’re ready with an offer?” Amanatullah recommends: “I’m much more interested in doing (type of work) here at (x company) than I am in the size of the initial offer.”

Go in with confidence

Once you’ve done your research, go in with a positive attitude. “I always suggest that candidates think of situations where they feel powerful before going into the interview,” says Kolb.

Then go and sell your worth. Smiley emphasizes that women often give too much credit to others, by saying things like “our team” spearheaded an initiative. Instead, she suggests starting with your individual contribution and then using it to explain a broader statement. She suggests rephrasing to: “I spearheaded last year’s cost-saving initiative, crafting the sourcing strategy that resulted in savings of 10% for the firm. Aside from the savings, one of the outcomes of that initiative I’m most proud of is that I brought together teams from across the company to execute on that strategy.”

Show your work and your value

“Often in job negotiations we assume that our interests (a higher salary, better benefits) are directly opposed to the company’s interests (to pay less),” says Amanatullah, when in fact, “many issues are compatible, i.e. the company wants motivated employees, so spending more on salary may be advantageous compared to restarting a candidate search.”

How do you assure the company that you are worth what you’re asking for? “Make your value visible in a currency that speaks to the person you’re dealing with,” says Kolb. She adds, “Connect with what’s good for you to what’s good for the company.”

Name your number

If, after deflecting and delaying, there still is no maneuvering around being asked to name a number first, then be confident and firm in your ask.

The experts were unified in their opinion about offering a range when asked about your expectations: Don’t do it. “The employer will expect you to accept the bottom,” says Brantner.

“If you have a strong sense of the market rate for the position, then I recommend giving a precise figure, rather than a range,” says Smiley. She says that saying “‘My salary expectations are $XX’ is a more decisive, confident response to the question.”

Negotiating as a woman

Women can be very good at negotiating, particularly when they feel they have been given permission to do so. 

In 2014, Management Science published a study where they found that an equal percentage of women and men negotiated their salary when the job ad had specified that the salary was negotiable. But when this was not mentioned in the initial job posting, the authors found that not only did significantly less women apply to the position, but of the women that did apply, a much lower percentage of women initiated salary negotiation. 

Another study in Industrial Relations, published in 2018, found that women do, by and large, ask for raises and promotions as frequently as men, however, they receive the raises and promotions much less frequently.

Amanatullah, who has focused a lot of her research on exploring how women struggle with self-advocacy and the dangers of coming off as too aggressive, says, “Unfortunately it is a very fine line to walk, but it is important to try and to recognize that being assertive in what you ask for does not necessarily require doing so aggressively. Some think that approaching a negotiation as if it were for someone else could help women to overcome this psychological hurdle.”

Cumulative effects of negotiating

It is also important to remember that many companies will offer future raises as a percentage of your base salary. A boss may deem a 4% annual raise equal for two employees with the same title, but the employee who starts with a $10,000 higher salary will eventually have a significantly higher base salary. Successful negotiation for your base salary will help you on a path to narrow the pay gap throughout your career.

As Amanatullah says, “Your starting salary really does set the stage for your future earning potential, so it is really important first to seize the opportunity to negotiate (even if the opportunity is not handed to you!) and also to be assertive in asking for your target price.”

If you’re the employer

If you’re on the other side of the interview desk and you’re the one hiring, the advice is similar: Know what you want and be clear about it right from the start. 

Smiley says, “When I work with clients on the organization side of a negotiation, I recommend that they be up front with salary ranges when posting jobs and when speaking with candidates. There seems to be a mistaken belief that holding back that info will help the company get a great candidate for a below-market rate, which is a short-term win, but can be costly in the long term as employees realize they’re being undercompensated.”

Brantner says, “Often people can be advocates in their company for making change.” After one hiring manager successfully advocates for disclosing salary ranges and establishing set salary bands, Brantner has often found that there is a ripple effect in a company, with other departments following suit.

Companies with public pay scales

There are certain fields that will provide a defined salary ahead of an interview, notably government jobs. Other industries with clear pay grades include universities, hospitals, unions and others with set salary bands. But keep in mind that in private companies, almost all upper-echelon jobs are much more open to negotiation. And even at companies that list salaries with job ads, the numbers will rarely be given higher up the ladder.

Take time to think

Once an offer is made, never accept it right away. Ask for the offer in writing and for some time to think it over. Take that time to go over the contract and make sure that it meets your needs. If not, go back and negotiate the offer until it is satisfactory to both you and the employer.

Know what you want

If you’ve done your research on what you want and what the company wants, navigating the salary questions should be easy sailing. If the conversation feels inequitable, heed it as a warning sign that this company is probably not a good fit.

And in the end, if the offer matches your needs, you don’t have to negotiate. “I always like to remind my clients that it’s ok to decide to not negotiate,” says Smiley. “There can be a lot of pressure to always negotiate, but I don’t think the situations we face in business or life are absolutes. As long as you’re making a conscious, rational decision for why you’re not negotiating, I think that’s fine. There’s no shame in saying yes to a deal that works for you as-is.”

Claire Lui is a design, business and culture writer.

Related Stories